Ashley Cole

Problem Position to Embarassment of Riches

Cast your minds back a little over a decade and you will remember the English national team’s problematic left side. The left-midfield role was scarcely contested, and without much quality too. Nick Barmby and Trevor Sinclair benefitted hugely from this.

The left-back slot was just as much of a problem. After Stuart Pearce’s long reign as England’s regular number 3 came to an end, Graeme Le Saux was a natural replacement during Glenn Hoddle’s spell in charge. Hoddle’s favoured 3-5-2 formation with wing-backs on either side ensured the position was Le Saux’s to lose as it suited his game down to the ground.

Moving on, Kevin Keegan struggled to find a consistent performer at left-back. More often than not, Keegan played Phil Neville in a position which, despite claiming it as his favourite position, is not a position he was ready to play at international level at that time.

Surprise call-ups

When Sven Goran Eriksson took over in 2001, it kicked off several months of England caps being given out to any available, English, Premier League left-back. Chris Powell made 5 appearances for his country during this time and Michael Ball won a solitary cap. Gareth Barry was also trialled in this position but failed to make the position his own as he was still finding his way (and his best position) at Aston Villa in his early years as a professional.

Ashley Cole thankfully came along and made sure that number 3 shirt was his for years to come. Initially the lack of competition may have had something to do with it. But the improvement in his defending, rather than showing a reliance on pace to get himself out of trouble, in the last few years has seen him become one of the best full backs, defensively, in Europe.

Competition

Only now does Cole have real competition for his place.

The maturity of Leighton Baines over the last 12 months has been a joy to watch. He has always been a player of great quality on the ball. He showed that in his time at Wigan. At Everton, Baines has grown in confidence year after year and formed an unrivalled partnership with Steven Pienaar down the left of Everton’s improving team. He is better technically with the ball at his feet than Cole, with crossing ability to put Cole to shame. What perhaps lets Baines down in his challenge to become England’s left-back, is his lack of experience in big games. Rightly or wrongly, players at clubs taking part in the Champions League are always more likely to be picked for England. The rumoured move to Manchester United this summer didn’t materialise, but had it done, it would’ve been interesting to see how much closer Baines would be pushing Cole for that England place by now.

Cole’s understudy at Chelsea is 23 year old Englishman Ryan Bertrand. At 23, Bertrand would have no doubt been hoping to have played more 1st team football than he has done. But on the other hand, he has played in a UEFA Champions League final. And he has the winners’ medal to show it. He played that night as a left-midfielder, as he has done on several other occasions, but he’s also an adept left-back with a similar playing style to that of Ashley Cole. He’s pacey, quick to get forward and he covers the centre-backs well when needed (essential as John Terry shows no signs of getting any quicker). This season Bertrand already seems to be trusted with more game-time by club manager Roberto Di Matteo. And this trust in him by a manager who is clearly confident he is ready for top-level football should see him really improve between now and next May.

The 4th contender for the England left-back position is Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs. The youngest of these 4 players, Gibbs has made a brilliant start to the 2012/2013 season. He appears far more confident and composed in possession. He is playing like he now believes he deserves to be playing at this high level. And last but by no means least, he will be benefitting from the addition of Steve Bould to Arsene Wenger’s coaching team. Bould was a part of Arsenal’s original famous back four and is already receiving many plaudits for the current side’s defensively solid start to the season. Gibbs will no doubt improve his education in the art of defending with Bould around. The 22 year old is already now keeping Andre Santos out of Arsenal’s team, despite the Brazilian only arriving from Fenerbahce 12 months ago. He will now be looking to add to his handful of England caps.

The future

So England have gone from throwing caps around like confetti in desperate searches for left-backs, to now having real competition of quality players in this position. And whilst these players aren’t necessarily all at the peak of their powers at present, the coming years will see the best of the three challengers to Ashley Cole’s number 3 shirt.

Pictures courtesy of Allsport, mirror.co.uk, Getty Images and arsenal.com.

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Cole Uses Champions League to Pronounce World Class Quality

Ashley Cole is a player who has often been in the headlines. Whether it was for his personal relationship and its breakdown, his on-the-pitch exploits, his training ground air rifle incident, being banned from driving or his controversial move to Chelsea in 2006 he has often dominated front and back pages of the national newspapers.

He burst onto the scene as a professional footballer with Arsenal in the 2000/2001 season, profiting from an injury to Silvinho to show his promise in the Gunners’ first team. He made 228 appearances for Arsenal before eventually signing for Chelsea in August 2006, after a drawn-out affair that involved a ‘tapping-up’ meeting with Chelsea officials in January 2005.

England

He has been a regular in the England set-up since his debut in 2001 and has virtually been an automatic pick for most of the last 11 years. His time with England has also had its ups and downs for Cole. At one time he was booed by England fans at a few home matches at Wembley. And comments that came out in the media quoting Cole as saying “I hate England and the people” didn’t help his cause in 2010. But he has always performed fairly well for England. Perhaps giving his best performances in recent years as he has grown and improved as a player. His athleticism was always strength of his as a youngster, but now he has fused that with excellent positioning, one-on-one defending and timing of his tackles.

Medals

After winning 5 major trophies (excluding the Community Shield) in his 6 full seasons at Arsenal, he has surpassed that in his first 6 seasons at Chelsea with the Champions League winners triumph on Saturday being the 7th major competition’s winners medal he has picked up in that time. Whilst surprisingly he won more Premier League winners medals at Arsenal than he has thus far with Chelsea (two to one), the Champions League victory and the fact that Arsenal haven’t won a single trophy since he left should eliminate any doubt that he made the right decision to switch from North London to West London 6 years ago.

Improvement

There is also no question that Cole has improved as a player as a result of his time at Chelsea. Arsenal under Arsene Wenger are said to spend very limited time working on defending in training, which can only be to the detriment of young defenders like Cole was at the time. At Chelsea he has worked under Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Guus Hiddink – all known for being fantastic coaches and all known for having well-organised defences. Cole has reaped the rewards of this and has obviously been keen to improve. The young marauding left-back we saw at Arsenal is now a solid, reliable left-back who is rarely beaten, both in the air and on the ground. He still gets forward to support attacks but chooses the time to do it more effectively to ensure it doesn’t imbalance the team or leave them too exposed at the back. He has come up against the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben and Theo Walcott, all offering different problems, and has not been outclassed in any of those battles.

Champions League Stage for Excellence

The 2011/2012 season has been a dramatic one for Cole. Chelsea struggled for form under previous manager Andre Villas-Boas in the first half of the season. Cole found himself out of the team as Villas-Boas seemed to want to re-build the Chelsea team with younger players. A key match for Cole was the Champions League second round 1st leg away to Napoli. Cole was left on the bench, along with other experienced players, but was called upon just 12 minutes in when Jose Bosingwa limped off injured. Chelsea went down 3-1 that night in Naples but Cole made a crucial goal-line clearance to keep the score at 3-1. By the time the second leg came around, Villas-Boas had been replaced as manager by interim boss Roberto Di Matteo. The Italian restored faith in the senior professionals and they all starred in a brilliant 4-1 victory at Stamford Bridge to ensure progress to the quarter finals.

Two brilliant defensive performances against Benfica in the quarter-finals were followed by two world class performances against Barcelona in a dramatic two-legged semi-final. Cole was exceptional at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea defeated the holders 1-0 thanks to Didier Drogba’s goal. He was then faultless in the Nou Camp as ten-man Chelsea fought off wave after wave of Barcelona pressure to draw 2-2 and make the final.

In front of a worldwide audience in the UEFA Champions League Final of 2012, Ashley Cole confirmed his standing as a truly world class left-back with another master class performance at full-back. Facing the likes of Ribery, Robben and Lahm, Cole was rarely beaten, made another key goal-line clearance and was fantastic as Chelsea soaked up almost constant pressure from Bayern Munich to take the game to a penalty shoot-out. Cole showed nerves of steel to score a penalty in the shoot-out and help his side on the way to the trophy that has eluded them since Roman Abramovich began to plough his millions into the club in 2003. Whilst he is not perfect and could improve on his delivery into the box when in good positions to cross, he has developed over the years to the point where he can now be considered one of the best left-backs in world football.

Picture courtesy of fansfc.com.